Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge As an Aristotelian Tragedy

Marlena Tassone, Honours Bachelor of Science in Biology (2009), Lakehead University, Ontario, Canada

decorated initial 'T'homas Hardy incorporates many elements of the classical Aristotlean tragedy in his novel The Mayor of Casterbridge (1886). In an Aristotelian tragedy, the most important element is the experience of catharsis, the arousing of pity and fear in the audience. The effect of catharsis on the audience depends on the unity of the plot and the effective presence of a tragic hero. The plot in an Aristotelian tragedy consists of the reversal, the recognition and the final suffering. In the protagonist's following a pattern of decline and alienation, Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge is similar to the Greek tragedies, in particular Sophocles' Oedipus the King. Both literary works use three elements — catharsis, a complicated plot containing a secret, and the presence of a tragic hero — to create the effect of tragedy. In The Mayor of Casterbridge, however, Hardy uses these three characteristics to create a modern Aristotelian tragedy played out in mid-nineteenth century England.

In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Hardy use of coincidence implies that he shares Aristotle's belief that the plot is important in the creation of a tragedy. In much the same way as Aristotle, Hardy attaches special importance to the three elements of the plot in a tragedy: the reversal, the recognition, and the final suffering. He unites the events in The Mayor of Casterbridge with these elements to portray the "paradoxical rise and fall" (Seymour-Smith 20) of former hay-trusser and corn-factor/local political leader Michael Henchard. The basic structure of the plot in the novel "with its emphasis upon the single protagonist and upon the course of the hero's downfall, is patently Aristotelian" (Kramer 70). In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Hardy follows the rise and fall of Michael Henchard, a poor itinerant agricultural worker who gains both fortune and respect upon becoming the mayor of Casterbridge. Unfortunately, the consequences of his past transgressions contribute to the tragic decline in Henchard's material, social and familial welfare.

In Sophocles' Oedipus the King, the arrival of the Messenger from Corinth initiates the tragic reversal of the protagonist. The Messenger, ironically attempting to help Oedipus by telling him that the Corinthian royal couple, Polybus and Merope, were not his real parents, creates the opposite effect; he provides the crucial piece of information that will reveal that Oedipus has fulfilled the prophecy of the Oracle of Delphi by killing his father and marrying his mother. In Hardy's novel, Mrs Goodenough, the furmity woman from the opening chapter, enacts a function similar to that of the Corinthian Messenger in Oedipus the King. The return of the furmity woman and her dramatic revelation in court plays a vital role in hastening Henchard's decline. Mrs. Goodenough exposes Henchard's shameful secret: the sale of his wife Susan and their child, Elizabeth-Jane, to a sailor for five guineas two decades earlier. Her declaration results in Henchard's social and financial ruin, as

the amends he had made in after life were lost sight of in the dramatic glare of the original act . . . On that day — almost at that minute — he passed the ridge of prosperity and honour, and began to descend rapidly on the other side. (Hardy 291)

Although at the point at which Susan and her grownup daughter enter the town he is the most influential man in Casterbridge, the revelation of the wife-sale destroys his public reputation as his financial difficulties compel Henchard to declare bankruptcy; simultaneously disgraced and ruined, he soon becomes a social outcast. The furmity woman's accusation initiates the tragic reversal in The Mayor of Casterbridge; however, the reversal is complete only when Donald Farfrae becomes the new mayor. At this point in the plot, Henchard has lost his reputation as a worthy and honourable citizen, his political and fiscal capital, and the opportunity to marry the heiress Lucetta Templeman. Henchard, suffering from poverty and loneliness, finds himself again at the bottom of fortune's wheel, while Farfrae now occupies a station at the top.

The connection between the reversal and recognition scenes in the plots of both Oedipus the King and The Mayor of Casterbridge is essential in each writer's development of an Aristotelian tragedy. In both literary works, the reversal leads directly to the recognition. Specifically, Oedipus discovers his true identity only after combining details from the stories of both the Messenger and the Herdsman; through interrogating these tale-tellers and their stories and then integrating these stories, he pieces together a coherent narrative that contains the essential knowledge he previously lacked and acted in ignorance of. Similarly, in The Mayor of Casterbridge, Henchard's recognition of his true circumstances occurs following the visit of the Royal Personage (presumably, Prince Albert) to Casterbridge. During the state visit of the Royal Personage, Henchard attempts to conduct himself for the last time in the role of mayor. Instead of choosing to occupy the role of a mere onlooker, meeting the royal visitor among the crowd of townspeople, Henchard, dressed in his "fretted and weather-beaten garments of bygone years" (Hardy 339), attempts to greet the visitor on behalf of the city. His "eccentric behaviour" (Kramer 81) merely represents a desperate attempt to regain some of the dignity previously accorded to him as mayor. Only after the confrontation between Farfrae and himself in the loft does Henchard fully recognize his loss of his status. He can no longer identify himself as the mayor of Casterbridge, nor can he expect to receive the same privileges that he once enjoyed. With this realization, Henchard "finally acknowledges the overthrow of his own 'reign'" (Kramer 85) as the Mayor of Casterbridge. Henchard's insight and recognition of his current circumstance set into action his final suffering.

The protagonists in both Sophocles' Oedipus the King and Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge experience their final suffering following the reversal and the recognition scene. In an Aristotelian tragedy, the suffering of the protagonist is irreversible: Oedipus' self-blinding, prompted by Jocasta's suicide, cannot be reversed — he is bound forever to suffer in self-imposed darkness. Similarly, Henchard experiences a final suffering in The Mayor of Casterbridge. Henchard suffers through more than one death in the novel. Long before his physical death, Henchard dies in reputation and public esteem, no longer a man of wealth and power when his time as mayor ends. The moment of his final suffering, however, occurs after he experiences the loss of his step-daughter, Elizabeth-Jane.

Immediately following the recognition, Hardy notes that a great change comes over Henchard regarding Elizabeth-Jane:

[I]n the midst of his gloom [Elizabeth-Jane] seemed to him as a pin-point of light . . . and for the first time, he had a faint dream that he might get to like her as his own, — if she would only continue to love him. (Hardy 361)

Unfortunately, Richard Newson's appearance in Casterbridge destroys any hope Henchard has of a possible future with Elizabeth-Jane. Hardy remarks that, upon Newson's arrival, "Henchard's face and eyes seemed to die" (Hardy 366). When he lies to Newson about Elizabeth-Jane's death, he is trying to avoid losing her (perhaps, in his mind, a second time, although he is all too aware that this girl is the sailor's daughter and not his). Sadly, his deception of Newson betrays Elizabeth-Jane's trust and ultimately destroys their relationship. Henchard dies because he sees no reason to continue living; he has lost the last person who loved him and whom he loved in return.

According to Aristotle, a tragedy must contain the presence of a tragic hero: "a leader in his society who mistakenly brings about his own downfall because of some error in a judgement or innate flaw" (Banks ix). Both Oedipus of Thebes and Michael Henchard of Casterbridge satisfy many Aristotelian requirements of the tragic hero. Thomas Hardy's novel records Henchard's rise and fall, revealing him at the outset as an ambitious, proud, and impulsive hay-trusser who (between chapters, and outside the narrative, as it were) "rises from shameful obscurity to the mayoralty" (Chapman 148). Early in the novel, Henchard is at the height of his prosperity and resides at the top of fortune's wheel. He is well liked and highly esteemed by the townspeople of Casterbridge. Consequently, Henchard position in society is high enough for his fall to be considered tragic.

In Aristotelian tragedies, the tragic hero causes his (or her) own downfall through the operation of some innate flaw or hamartia. Often the protagonist of a tragedy suffers from hubris, or excessive pride. The essence of the tragic hero, however, is that their very nature compels "them to take actions the least advantageous to them" (Kramer 16) despite possessing free will. For example, Teiresias adequately warns Oedipus not to pursue the investigation of Laius's death, but Oedipus, too stubborn to listen, continues his search for the king's murderer. He becomes the instrument of his own destruction because his pride prevents him from paying heed to the prophet Tieresias's advice. Similarly, Henchard's attributes such as his "pride, his impulsive nature and his ambition are exactly the conditions [that cause] his downfall and his destruction" (Gatrell 84). His character traits and his subsequent reaction to certain circumstances lead to his financial ruin, and to the destruction of his relationships with the others about whom he cares most.

In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Hardy unites Michael Henchard's tragic fall with his excessive pride, his impulsive nature and his ambition to succeed. Throughout the novel, Henchard makes many mistakes: he fails to maintain his wealth, his social position and his relationships with those who care for him. His jealousy of Farfrae causes "him to lose both a faithful employee and a good friend" (Kramer 86). Henchard's pride cannot accept the fact that Farfrae has become more popular then he among the townspeople of Casterbridge. Furthermore, he feels threatened by Farfrae's sudden success; thus, he dismisses Farfrae. Donald Farfrae's dismissal leads to a drawn-out business competition between the two corn-factors that strips Henchard of his personal possessions, his public favour as mayor, and the two women in his life: Lucetta Templeman and Elizabeth-Jane Newson.

Michael Henchard's excessive pride not only destroys his relationship with Donald Farfrae, but it also causes him to alienate Elizabeth-Jane. In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Henchard's "discovery that [Elizabeth-Jane] is not his daughter" (Paterson 99) wounds his fatherly pride; as a consequence of this knowledge, his treatment of Elizabeth-Jane changes dramatically. He becomes very cold toward her and even avoids addressing her by name. Hardy notes that "Henchard showed a positive distaste for the presence of this girl not his own, whenever he encountered her" (Hardy 203). Consequently, Elizabeth-Jane eventually moves in with Lucetta and this separation further weakens Henchard and Elizabeth-Jane's already strained relationship. Henchard's relationship with Lucetta suffers as well. He is too proud to visit Lucetta when his stepdaughter is present, in addition, his pride prevents him from accepting Lucetta's invitation for a private meeting. His recurring absent disheartens Lucetta, who "no longer [bares toward] Henchard all that warm allegiance which had characterized her in their first acquaintance" (Hardy 226). Subsequently, she marries Donald Farfrae instead, rationalizing that Henchard's conduct at Weydon-Prioirs negates his elibility as a socially accepotable husband.

In an Aristotelian tragedy, the most important element in the audience's response, catharsis, depends upon the emotional effect of the literary work. Despite being classified as a novel, Thomas Hardy's The Mayor of Casterbridge evokes both the feeling of pity and fear in response to Michael Henchard's suffering. Henchard is a man "who reacts to circumstances according to his character — a man ready to absorb greater opposition than he receives, and then laying himself open, willing to accept full blame for what unexpectedly happens" (Kramer 90). For instance, Henchard refuses to defend himself against Elizabeth-Jane's accusation regarding his deception of Newson; he does "not sufficiently value himself to lessen his sufferings by strenuous appeal or elaborate argument" (Hardy 402). Furthermore, Henchard seeks out his own punishment because he is determined to shoulder the burden of his own mistakes. Even in death, he is punishing himself for his past misdeeds. An example is the closing lines of Henchard's will where he asks ?that no man remember" (Hardy 409) him. In The Mayor of Casterbridge the more Henchard condemns and punishes himself for his past transgressions, the more sympathy and pity the reader feels for him.

In addition to evoking readers' sympathy and pity, Thomas Hardy also arouses their sense of fear. The destruction of harmony in the novel following Henchard's tragic fall affects the lives of those around him, such as Farfrae, Lucetta, and Elizabeth-Jane. These individuals are witnesses to the repercussions of Henchard's actions and are also subject to suffer from his transgressions. For instance, the reader fears for Farfrae's life immediately following "the battle of physical strength" (Kramer 86) between himself and Henchard. Hardy uses the reader's uncertainty regarding Farfrae's fate to instill the emotion of fear. Like the bull, Henchard?s nature is self-destructive. His death at the end of the novel is tragic, yet it also alleviates the reader's anxiety. Subsequently, Hardy succeeds in creating a cathartic experience.

In The Mayor of Casterbridge, Hardy creates "the most valid and meaningful modern revival and adaptation" (Seymour-Smith 23) of an Aristotelian tragedy. Hardy combines the elements of plot and the presence of a tragic hero to induce a cathartic experience at the end of the novel. The Mayor of Casterbridge exhibits many similarities with Sophocles' Oedipus the King in that each literary work recounts and dramatizes the rise and subsequent fall in fortune of the tragic hero through the operation of some innate character flaw. Although Thomas Hardy's novel is not a drama, it does satisfy many requirements for an Aristotelian tragedy. Thomas Hardy skilfully follows the classical design of a tragedy and, in doing so, his novel The Mayor of Casterbridge stands independently as an exceptional piece of nineteenth-century literature.

24th March 2006

Works Cited

Banks, Thomas Howard. "Introduction." Three Theban Plays: Sophocles' Antigone, Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus. By. Sophocles. New York: Oxford, 1956. xi-i.

Chapman, Raymond. "The Worthy Encompassed by the Inevitable: Hardy and a New Perception of Tragedy." Reading Thomas Hardy. Ed. Charles P. C. Pettit. New York: Palgrave, 1998.

Gatrell, Simon. Thomas Hardy and the Proper Study of Mankind. Charlotesville, UP of Virginia: 1993.

Hardy, Thomas. The Mayor of Casterbridge. New York: Penguin, 1981.

Kramer, Dale. Thomas Hardy: The Forms of Tragedy. New York: Macnillan, 1975.

Paterson, John. "The Mayor of Casterbridge as Tragedy." Hardy: A Collection of Critical Essays. Ed. Albert J. Guerard. Englewood Cliffs, Spectrum: 1963. 91-112.

Seymour-Smith, Martin. "Introduction." The Mayor of Casterbridge. By Thomas Hardy. New York: Penguin, 1981. 11-58.

Sophocles. Three Theban Plays: Sophocles' Antigone, Oedipus the King and Oedipus at Colonus. Trans. Theodore Howard Banks. New York: Oxford, 1956.


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Last modified 21 April 2006